Has technology become too intrusive?

As a juror in search of [the next idea], futurist Alexander Mankowsky is right on his home turf. What he’s been particularly struck by are artistic reflections on and social criticism of how we deal with technology. Is it high time to shift gears?

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Futurist and juror Alexander Mankowsky, Photo: Florian Voggeneder

We had a chance to chat with Alexander Mankowsky during the 2014 Prix Ars Electronica jury sessions in early May. In addition to his temporary gig selecting this year’s recipient of [the next idea] voestalpine Art and Technology Grant, he’s a futurist on the staff of world-famous German carmaker, Daimler. Emerging trends in transportation and, above all, peering more than a decade into the future are definitely at the top of that company’s forecasting agenda. But before getting an insider’s view of future developments in the field of individual mobility, we asked him about the futuristic ideas being submitted by aspirants in this Prix Ars Electronica category.

As a juror choosing the recipient of [the next idea] voestalpine Art and Technology Grant, what are your expectations of a “next idea”?

Alexander Mankowsky: A “next idea” ought to express the zeitgeist and advance it. It doesn’t have to be thought all the way through, but it has to be trailblazing. For me, artistic impressions are sufficient as well. They can sketch opportunities or outline problems, but by all means they have be themes that deal with where we go from here and how we get there. The “next idea” should contribute to exploring the future.

What’s your timeframe far as “next” is concerned?

Alexander Mankowsky: For me, “next” means an idea that will have an impact on people over the next 10 to 15 years. That’s what the timeframe should be. Projects submitted by grant applicants ought to recognize the driving forces of tomorrow and be able to express ideas that are still in an embryonic stage right now. For example, articulating an interrelationship among biology, nature and technology in a very innovative way. Or expressing how the internet and communication in general will develop in the future. I intentionally say “express” here since I don’t expect this idea to already constitute a concrete solution to a problem. That’s not what I’m looking for. That would be asking too much of individuals bringing forth concepts at the nexus of art and technology.

Alexander Mankowsky at his office, Photo: Daimler

Now that you’ve had a chance to consider the submissions, how would you assess their quality?

Alexander Mankowsky: Inquiring into quality necessarily entails defining the criteria of quality. So, as I just stated, an idea should point out something with great future promise and express what’s emerging right now. Thus, based on my criteria, what I’ve been especially struck by are the many poetic works that very critically depict prevailing social circumstances. At present, there’s no trace at all of go-go optimism; instead, what I’m seeing is critique that high-tech has gone too far. The submissions aren’t so solution-oriented that it would lead you to say that something new is in the making and things are about to get better in a particular area. Instead, we’re being confronted by ideas dealing with how to keep technology at bay or downgrade it. On the whole, I find this fascinating. And the quality is also good.

People are engrossed in a process of reflection. What is an algorithm doing with me and my body? What impact are communications tools having on me and my social relationships? Are they getting better or worse?

I find questions like this extraordinarily interesting. Needless to say, unsettling ideas are making the rounds. And every one of us senses it too—that you have these very promising communications tools that are supposed to change everything. But you also notice that there’s still loneliness. Many people use their social networks as a protective shield to inhibit real interpersonal contact and they just stay hidden behind their monitors. I find this topic to be of tremendous importance: the interface with the human body, with the sensate being and the physical state of being human, and the digital world with its promises, solutions and—let’s face it—seductions.

The theme of the 2014 Ars Electronica Festival is “C… what it takes to change.” What word beginning with C do we need in effectuating change?

Alexander Mankowsky: Caution! Of course, change sounds good at first, but that doesn’t always have to be the case. Not every change brings about an improvement. You also always have to consider if it might be better to leave well enough alone. And especially if there are multiple options available. People should give some thought to this.

One of the future trends in the area of mobility: Driving autonomously (Photo: Daimler)

You’re a futurist at Daimler. What future trends have you identified in the area of mobility?

Alexander Mankowsky: In the transportation field, there’s now a considerable amount of momentum in the direction of autonomous driving. Autonomous technologies will become very widespread in the next 15 years. They’ll open up new ways to transport freight and deliver much greater convenience to motorists. Here, we have to answer a lot of questions, some of an almost philosophical nature. How do we want to deal with machines and mechanical intelligence? This is the second trend that I’ve identified in the area of mobility. We at Daimler are developing ideas in connection with this but, at the same time, we’re keeping an eye on whether people also accept this and are prepared to purchase it. We’re suggesting configurations that are essentially based on cooperation, that human self-determination can be enhanced by these technologies. The third essential concept with respect to mobility is urbanization. The concept always sounds so great, but lots of people don’t undergo this voluntarily. It’s not so nice being compressed. Mobility will also have to serve as a means of giving people a way to avoid the necessity of moving to a city, but rather to create and maintain their quality of life. And in cities, where compaction actually is the case and there’s not much room for separate lanes for cars, bikes, new electric bicycles, and devices that haven’t even been invented yet—vehicles for people, children, etc.—the shared space of the future has to be invented from scratch. Social and technological innovation is another point that we—all of us—have to learn to deal with.

Alexander Mankowsky

Born in Berlin 1957, Alexander Mankowsky studied Social Science, Philosophy and Psychology at the ‘Freie Universität Berlin’. In 1989 he started working in the research institute of Daimler in Berlin. The multidisciplinary approach in the institute integrated a wide array of disciplines, from social sciences to artificial intelligence. His current working topics are Futures Studies, focussed on the ever changing culture of mobility, the interdependency of social and technological innovation and other aspects of envisioning paths into the future.